The Cultural Dictionary of Punk

You wouldn't say that I was a punk rocker, but my record collection (yes, record collection) seems to have an awful lot of Ramones albums in it. For decades I wore a locket every day with a picture of Joey Ramone in it. I seem to have a weakness for some of the old CBGB's bands. When I need a little pick me up, I play "Atomic" (Blondie, I probably should explain). Really loudly. I feel it is good for my so-called soul. My close friends, and even some casual associates, know this about me, which is why I was surprised -- and then not surprised at all -- when a bookseller friend of mine, Kate H., appeared at my house recently with a book for me. "We got this in," she said, "and -- well -- Here!" Then she stood, waiting, waiting to see the expression on my face when I unwrapped the book (which she had, in excellent style, wrapped in old newsprint).

When I saw The Cultural Dictionary of Punk (recently published by Continuum, the folks who did those completely awesome 33 1/3 books), I think I smiled so big and so hard my cheeks hurt. Kate is a doll. I immediately began flipping through it and knew right away that this was gonna be one FUN book to read.

I read it from cover to cover. Every chance I had, I was sitting down with it: with my morning coffee; with a drink at the end of the day. I had my quibbles with it -- this is a highly subjective little book -- but in general I had to admire Rombes' book, which is passionate and filled with interesting details I didn't know.

I had two real issues with Rombes' work, both of which I had the opportunity to discuss in emails with the author. One is that several entries are really these personal discourses on some obviously serious problems that have arisen in Rombes' life. His family suffered horribly from a traumatic event beyond their control, and I wouldn't dream of trying to dismiss them or anything like that. But the sections relating to them did read sort of weirdly next to entries on the glories of the Ramones first three albums. The juxtaposition was jarring, and it detracted from the force of the book as a whole. I often thought, as I read, that Rombes should have just written The Cultural Dictionary of Punk and then done a shorter, tighter memoir about his family's tragedy, which Rombes admitted to me was probably true. So we'll see what his next project is like.

My second issue (which Rombes is trying to address as I type this) is that the book does not come with a CD (or a list of links to recordings online) of many of the songs Rombes discusses. Over and over again he has long discussions of songs that he describes as, you know, bloodcurdlingly perfect examples of this, that, or the other, and I said, "OH MAN I GOTTA HEAR THAT NOW!" and ran to the computer, only to discover that there was pretty much no way I was gonna hear those songs; they're not available on iTunes, and frankly, with stuff like this, it'd be easy to spend waaay too much time and money hunting down obscure 45s. When I expressed my wish for a CD (impossible) or streaming audio or something like that (more possible, though a lot of work), Rombes took it to heart (others had made the same remark to him), and at his website he has begun to post links to key songs. This is really useful, but it's also, just, you know, really fun.

I want to explain that I don't believe that every song he mentions should be included in this compilation; I mean, anyone can find the first Ramones album, or Marquee Moon (that's Television, people: Television). The average reader of this book doesn't need someone to provide a link to "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" or "Chinese Rocks" or "Venus de Milo"; we've got those internalized pretty well by now, thanks. But there must have been at least a dozen really out there songs by, you know, punk bands from Cleveland or Tulsa -- bands that existed for about three minutes -- that Rombes talked about so tantalizingly that I basically wanted to shoot myself when I wasn't able to listen to them RIGHT THEN.

Well, listen: don't let my griping deter you. If you've got any interest whatsoever in punk rock, punk culture, punk whatever, then this book deserves a half inch of space on your shelf. http://culturaldictionaryofpunk.blogspot.com/